Monday, November 27, 2017

The Power of Compassion

The Power of Compassion 

Psalm 95:1-7a; Matthew 25:31-46

Last night PBS aired the Ron Howard documentary “Eight Days a Week.” It details the ascension of the Beatles in the mid 1960’s as kings of popular music. The hysteria was worldwide. Young fans became devoted followers, wearing tour T-shirts, and associating themselves with the band.  

As I recall those days, when even I had plenty of long dark hair, the Beatle-mania changed the way people identified with their favorite musicians, especially the front man of the band. 

In time the official entourage needed access badges from the performance venue to prove “they were with the band.” In Christian circles, there is still a very human tendency, for us to claim a personal identity with Christ the King, and let the identity of the Savior be our own claim to identity as a child of God. Still we know there is a world of difference between the entourage and the working members of the band. 

Bible translations have multiplied at an alarming rate in the second half of my lifetime. Each of the translations have their own priorities when handling the  source texts. All of the ancient sources we have for the Bible texts have variations. And even our New Testament manuscripts are old, but copies, and far from original. 

I saw a video, referenced in an article about “Justice” in the Bible, that highlighted an interesting choice made in the earliest of Bible translations to English, and that tradition is widely respected in most every English translation since then. 

There is a Greek word, that appears over 300 times in the Greek texts of the New Testament. When the word appears in the context of human justice systems, invariably it is translated as “Just, or Justice.” If the word is used in any other context, it is translated as “Righteousness.” And so, people who know only English translations, believe that the New Testament has very little to say about Justice. 

In the gospel text for today we have two cases of this justice/righteousness hand off. It is the same Greek word. The GOOD NEWS Bible magnifies the issue, by substituting righteous for “sheep” several times, to make the passage easier to understand. 

So when we find the scriptures leading us into the area of social justice, you might be persuaded that it is not justice per se, because your translation makes it a spiritual value of “righteousness.” Surprise, surprise, it is a “justice” issue in the eyes of God, and the readers of the bible in nearly any other language. 

So I contend that we are one with all creation. We are made out of the same “star stuff” - as many of us first learned in 1980 watching the PBS Cosmos series, with Carl Sagan talking about “billions and billions of stars”; then refreshed in the 2014 series, with Neil deGrasse Tyson in the chair. 

You and I, are all made out of the same stuff. We celebrate what makes us unique, though the building blocks are common. In fact, as we are able to share our uniqueness with one another, we grow in the intimacy or power of our relationship. This is the root of hope for communities of faith, learning to celebrate what makes us the same, and love each other for what makes us unique. 

I have hope that people of faith will in time come to love each other, as God loves all of us. We have often celebrated our unique mark as members of the body of Christ. Sadly, Christians are often looking to pick a fight with other Christians, and be even less accommodating to those of other faiths. This ignores that in a deep way, all creatures are marked as children of God. No test of faith, no affirmation of select theological beliefs are required. 

So though the present times have us geared to battle over issues, that we infuse with a holy passion of righteousness, this too will pass. There is a day coming, when the pendulum will swing, and first people of compassion, and later the general population, will once again make care for their neighbors a priority. 

It is often said in mainline Protestant circles, and even more clearly in the wider circles of contemplative writings, that God and Jesus have a ‘preference for the poor.’ There is an intentionality to take the side of those whom society would judge against and discredit, and hold them up as particularly cared for. 

The gospel passage this morning could not be more clear, “whenever you have cared for the least of these, you have done it for me.” We have already talked about how God gave birth to creation, and indeed, we are in the image of God. I have usually preached that the image of God in us is the ability to love and be loved. But as I am growing in my faith through prayer and contemplation this year,  I wonder if that might be selling a vision short of the truth, that there is much more to say about how we are made in the image of God. 

As the church we are the body of Christ, and the spirit of Jesus - the Holy Spirit, is within us, and would empower our acts of love, care, and generosity. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we share in the symbols of a cross cultural meal; bread and wine; absorbing the physical elements of the sacrament into the very fiber of our bodies. 

So let us declare in this worship service, that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Incarnation means that the God of heaven takes on an earthly body  - without giving up any identification with the Creator. In Christmas we celebrate the God of glory come to earth under common, ordinary, everyday, earthly circumstances. 

As we are the body of Christ, let us consider the proclamation of “The Reign of Christ” formerly known as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday - as the day we acknowledge that we are both: a part of the poor; and we are also one with the Christ. We are both the poor, and we are the Christ. In fact, as we grow in generosity, we draw nearer to the heart of God, and God “sees” the Christ in us.   

What would it mean if we claimed our identity as a part of the incarnation? It would mean we would have to take seriously that God lives within our hearts, our minds and our actions. It means we would take seriously our power to bring the blessings of God to all of those we contact. It means that - for better or worse, we have the power to embody God’s presence for others. 

In a way it seems scary. Clearly, we are not worthy to be considered a reigning monarch on earth, let alone claim the purity of the God in heaven. So then what gives? 

What gives is that we can pretend that our sins against others do not much matter, because ‘we are only human.’ But, in fact, as a part of the body of Christ, we are more than human. Our inclusion in the body of Christ is not a unique honor for us - as it exists in every other person. We are just as much a part of the body of Christ as everyone else. So then any sin against another, is a sin against the Christ. 

Can a non-Christian be a part of the body of Christ? I would say that the Christ is the physical representation of the God of Creation. I would say that we belong to that God, not only as a willful act of a faith declaration, but the very stuff of our being, our star stuff, carries the stamp of God, and indelible “Made In Heaven,” stamp, that makes us one with Christ, and with the poor, and with the rocks, and the moon, and the stars. 

As a part of an intentional faith community, we are empowered to deliver untold and unlimited grace and blessings to the world. We need to take our power as the body of Christ seriously. We have the power to do what the Christ would do, and bless, sanctify and even save the world. 

We do that when we act together to feed the community, as we did with our Thanksgiving Baskets. And each and every time we express God’s love to others, we draw nearer to God, who sees the Christ in our identity. 

So as the Christ is raised into the presence of the Almighty after death, so to - we are destined to sit at the feet of the Creator. We are called on Reign of Christ Sunday, to live with power and intention, spreading the blessings of God everywhere we go. 

On that final day, when the band of saints, those who sought to play their instruments to deliver God’s justice on this world, are called to step through the Pearly Gates, we can show our stamp and boldly say, “Let me in, I’m with the band.” Amen. 

  • End playing the final chorus of Dan Fogelberg “The Leader of the Band.” 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Give Thanks for the Good We Can Do

Give Thanks for the Good We Can Do 

Psalm 123; Matthew 25:14-30 

Sometimes I want to argue with the gospel. Why would God want to punish the timid and shy soul who was afraid of the wrath of God? What is so bad about being careful not to lose what was given to you? Wouldn’t we be worse off, if we tried something and failed? 

I know how to play the game of the self-righteous, and be distracted by the side issue, and avoid the point in the piece of scripture. I see this manner of debate frequently in what passes for public discourse, both from the left and the right. It is bad enough when we take actual quotations out of context and sling them around, as if they represent the summation of a person’s thinking on any given subject, or worse, a summation of their complete philosophy of life. 

So what point was Jesus making, really? God intends to punish those who fail to produce? Is there a Christian Performance Standard that is part of the Evaluation Process? 

I have seen this and similar texts handled like this way, with both good and bad intent. So let us first remember, this is a parable of Jesus. In effect Jesus says, “once upon a time there was a landowner.” The story is told to make a point. The story and the specifics belong to a different time, and a different culture, but the point is for you and me. 

God has given us gifts. We are expected to use these gifts for the glory of God. Whatever God gave us, ought to be used. 

Not a great singer? Maybe you do not need to be a part of the choir, but you can sure sing the hymns in your pew. And maybe in the shower, at a moderate volume. 

Not a great cook? Maybe someone else should do the turkey this year, you can still bring a green bean casserole, or bring dinner rolls. That is what one of my brothers always brings to family dinners. He has made it his thing, finding really good ones.  

Are you a master baker? Then you should not bring a grocery store pie. See if you can figure out how to find time to bring - say - a French Apple Cream Cheese with streusel topping homemade pie. 

The gifts that God gives you are unique and intended for you to share. One of the most obvious things we can say about our intimate relationships is that they depend on how we appreciate and respond to the most distinctively unique characteristics we see in our partners. 

In an ONA congregation, we are one of the few places in the local  community where persons are free to express their unique gifts of sexual orientation and identity - and have those traits recognized as gifts. 

I realize that not everyone can recognize variations in sexual orientation and gender as a gift. Because it is difficult for so many people, we choose to be bold and clear in our invitation. It is so very hard to find a church that will let everyone be themselves. 

As we grow into our Covenant Statement, we begin to relax and make room for those who would need to be reserved or secretive in other places. We look to encourage everyone with unique gifts, to find space to employ those gifts to the glory of God. 

In time this congregation will forge relationships with Gay Pride, PFLAG and Gay-Straight Alliance groups and supportive organizations. We will find ways to be a resource for those organizations that find alliances hard to make in this community. Within those relationships - where we may begin with a desire to help others, they will in turn help us to grow into our promise, and make us visible to local people who need to know we are here and welcoming. 

In Morton, our commitment to be a safe and welcoming place, makes us a unique gift among the churches in the wider area. It is our unique gifts that make us lovable and important. 

The gospel message says that God gives different gifts to different people. We might assume, from our culture, that the one given the most money was the most important. If we would pursue that line of thinking from the gospel context, then people of faith would expect that the wealthiest people in a “Christian country” would be the most willing to give to God and neighbor in proportion to the gifts they have been given. 

It would be a better world, in my estimation, if the richest people in the world invested as much in the good of the community as they did in paying lawyers and accountants to manage off-shore investment portfolios in order to avoid paying local taxes. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when companies invested heavily in the communities they served. They donated to community causes, they took pride when individuals they employed, took leadership roles within the community. That still works for local and regional businesses, but the multi-national corporate world takes a different view. 

If God gives you gifts for leadership, then it is great that your employer provides opportunities for you to exercise those gifts. It is even better, if you are also encouraged to use your gifts for the greater good. 

It is easy to think of ourselves as being “better than average” when we get involved in ‘extra-curricular’ activities. Only some of us realize it is an honor and a privilege to be able to do so. 

In the early days of my career at Commonwealth Edison, that is now known as Exelon, only Vice Presidents were authorized to accept any community positions that would take them out of the power plant or office during regular working hours. You could do what you wanted on your own time. But I was also required to work tons of overtime and respond to call-outs. It was hard to find time to call my own. 

As the years went by and the operation of the plant became more routine and reliable, there were increasing numbers of people who were permitted to participate, at least in the local organization of the company’s favorite charity. I had colleagues serving on the local Board for United Way, which has long been a favored charity of Commonwealth Edison and then Exelon. 

It is a gift to have the opportunity to serve others. Many folks, once they retire from their lifelong careers, find there are opportunities in  volunteering that they never appreciated before, but give them great pleasure. They enjoy the tasks. They enjoy meeting different people than those they encountered in their working life. 

So when Jesus tells a story, “Once upon a time there was a landowner . . . “ we listen for the natural center of gravity in the story. It is not about money and the rate of return. Jesus is not an account executive. While some translations get more detailed than others trying to symbolize the value of the gifts being distributed, it is not the heart of the story. Use the gifts you were given, and do not worry about what gifts God gave others. You best express your unique self, by letting your unique gifts be employed in promoting the good news of the gospel. 

I do not have gifts for theatre and drama. Your next pastor may well be able to enliven Worship and Bible Study with creative use of dramatic readings and skits. I can sing you a song. Because I do not do drama, does not make me less of a pastor. I can only use what God gave me. And I would stand in judgment if God gave me a guitar and a voice, and I only used it for my own enjoyment. 

The whole point is straight forward enough. Use the gifts God gave you, especially those things that make you unique, to make the world a better place. If God gave you money, put it to work for God’s glory. If God made you a teacher, make your gifts known and available. In all things, we thank God for the opportunity to serve. We thank God for a faith that empowers us to see this world, and live into the next. And in all things, to God be the glory, now and forever, Amen. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Church of Jesus the Prophet

Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 

The prophet in Hebrew literature has a lousy job. The prophets are always in high risk situations, explaining the sins of the culture to the kings and the community leaders. In many cases, the prophets are imprisoned, are treated badly, are disrespected. The potential cost of love is high. 

To be a prophet, you have to speak the uncomfortable truth. You usually love those you preach to, and want desperately for them to behave better, not for your sake, but for the good of the community before God. 

There is an unmistakable theme in our scriptures that God redeems communities and nations, and not individuals. If we believed that, we would be preaching day and night on the street corners pleading for people to love one another. We would be on our knees at the National Anthem protesting disrespect of our brothers and sisters, we would be on our knees at every public invocation, we would be constantly challenging our neighbors to give up their divisions and name calling. 

Amos is a minor prophet, meaning the book in his name is short. He ministered some 200 or more years before the Babylonian Exile. The book is a collection of prophetic messages. It is not a story form, it is not a history book. There is some organization of thematic sayings, but not enough to draw a conclusion about his biography. 

The distinctive message of Amos is that salvation for Israel (the traditional northern part of the land) rested on reversing the miserable treatment of the poor by the well to do. His devotion to matters of social justice makes Amos a stand out among the prophets. He is convinced that if Israel does not repent and remake its social order, God will allow them to be overrun and captured, again. 

This vision of a need for social consciousness is also represented in the works of other prophets who works reflect the conditions around the same time as Amos; Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. 

The apostle Paul was driven by a sense of urgency; he believed that the Second Coming of Jesus, and the end of this age, would occur during his lifetime. He was persuaded that the only hope for eternal life came from accepting the love of Jesus Christ, and seeing the goodness of God through the lens of the Christ. His obsession with the immediacy of the end of the age seems to have taken root in the faith of the Thessalonians.  

Apparently the Thessalonians were losing hope, because there had been deaths in their community. They may have felt that their faith was lacking which allowed people to die before Jesus returned. They may have felt that there was more to know and do, that they were not aware of. Clearly, the Thessalonians had understood and accepted their identity as Christians in community, and whatever happened to any of them, affected all of the others. 

So Paul, out of compassion and deep love for the church in Thessalonica, articulates that Jesus will first call the faithful from death, even before the living are called into communion the clouds.  

You and I have lived through any number of declarations that the end of the world is coming next week. We are aware of the entire “Left Behind” series of popular novels, that work on the theme that time is short and a specific set of personal commitments, are required. Only your own faith will save you. Your faith even supersedes your actions and your love of others. 

While there is plenty of bad theology to take apart in that series of books and movies, our focus this morning is that recently we traced this obsession with “a personal faith” in Jesus Christ to the era in post World War II and the booming economy. There was a foolish sense that major wars were done with, a fallacy even the Korean Conflict could not expose.

I have been telling you that we are connected to one another. That connection is not simply here in the faith community, but extends to our relationship with all of creation. St. Francis of Assisi is the earliest and most clearly associated with reverence for the way we are connected with all of creation. Long before scientists discovered that we share the same carbon based elemental building blocks with the rocks and trees, and even the stars, Francis created his “Canticle of the Sun.” This may well be the first piece of literature composed in Italian, not Latin. 

We are familiar with the illustration “brother sun, sister moon.” Here is a selection from the Canticle. 
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Within our own tradition, we sing the hymn, “All Things Their Creator Bless.” This morning our doxology takes its root in this very same poem. 

So we are all one. Our time in the faith community then is to be treated as a gym, or a rehearsal hall, for practicing the art of caring for one another. We learn how to behave towards one another, so we can do better at home, and in the office, and driving in traffic; the place where I am most likely to call people names and claim superiority.  

So the prophets call us to behave in a moral way. We treat each other  with respect. We are called to actively promote what is best for the community. As yet another gunman stalked the Sunday morning Worship Service with a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic machine gun, we have to ask, “Isn’t it time to take measures to limit mass shootings?” It is time to recognize that this is not a problem of one sick person, it is an epidemic of violence in the community. Our entire community is indicted by God for sending “thoughts and prayers” but not lifting a finger to make things better. 

Traci Blackmon, the United Church of Christ Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries said this week, “White male domestic terrorism is on the rise in America, and the white males in the White House refuse to acknowledge it. This is our nation’s greatest threat: the conversion of white hate and white power.” 

The prophetic voice is the one to say out loud truths that we are reluctant to hear. Hard truths, spoken in love, in hopes of calling the community into a better relationship with their holy Creator. 

But it is complicated. We can take the mantra of improving the morality of the community in a variety of ways. This same spirit of corporate morality is often interpreted to justify restrictions on any who are not white males. For instance, in the Congress there are plenty of measures to restrict health care to women. New insurance rules limit whose insurance covers pregnancy, because only women get pregnant, and apparently some in congress think they accomplish that all by themselves. 

You see, this upholding the morality of the community becomes complicated in a real hurry. So let me introduce a radical idea for our time and place in history; just because an issue is complicated and cannot be completely captured in a 140 character tweet, does not mean it is too complicated for public debate and negotiation. 

We can learn to respect each other. We can learn to honor nature and require civilized people to treat the environment with care and respect. It might be hard to quit smoking, but the majority of people will experience real and often measurable improvements in their health if they develop the necessary persistence to quit. 

The role of the prophet is not really focused on telling the future, although that is how it is characterized. Rev. Stamerjohn clarified this during our Bible Study this week. I cannot quote him directly, but he said, the prophets warned the communities to change their sinful ways, or there would be consequences. Then, failing to change and bad things happened, people said, ‘See, the prophet predicted it.’ In fact, the role of the prophet is to make the sins of the nation clear, and call for a change of heart and a change of behavior. 

Repentance means, to change. It is not much concerned with feeling sorry for sins and errors. Repentance means - turn around - go a different way - leave the path you are on and do something better,

There are plenty of churches with the names of: Christ the King, because everybody loves a winner. Many churches celebrate Christ the Redeemer, because it is all about Jesus and me. I often snicker at the name, “Our Savior’s ‘Favorite’ Church,” has it implies an insider’s access to special privileges. 

What we do not find is, “The Church of Jesus the Prophet.” We like to limit our association with telling the hard truth, since we know that is not a warm and cuddly feeling. We fear speaking out too sharply, might mark us as “holier than thou,” or invite our neighbors to call us hypocrites. 

So today my invitation is for us to simply consider that a life of faith requires us to be self-aware, and ready to grow in faith. To grow in faith means that, we need to continually “up our game.” in order to live out our faith in ways that respect our new awareness. We need not fear “change,” just call it repentance. 

I have a song for you this morning called “Ready, Set, Repent.” I will have the lyrics of the chorus projected, should you want to sing along. It is a part of the collection of songs I wrote for Advent, the season before Christmas, when we prepare not only for the coming of a baby - but also - prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus to earth at the end of the age. The song celebrates our connection to each other, and a willingness to change and grow. 

“Ready, Set, Repent” 
One, two and three, prepare for the coming. 
A, B, and C, get a clue from this advent. 
On your mark, to make a new beginning. 

One, two and three, Ready, Set, Repent. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Who Is the Greatest?

Who Is the Greatest? 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 

First Thessalonians may well be the first letter written by Paul, and also the first words written of our New Testament. So Paul is setting the precedent for the style of letters that compose the larger part of our New Testament. 

In our Tuesday Bible Study, we have been wrestling with the letter known as First Corinthians, also an early letter of Paul. As the folks in the Bible Study tell the story, there has been a certain reluctance in this congregation to spend any meaningful time studying Paul, and an easy acceptance of the way he has been characterized. It is clearly our intention to break that pattern, and let the apostle Paul speak to us in Morton. 

There are several problems we encounter dealing with Paul. He often cites the common practice of the community - as if the culture “proved” the veracity of what he was saying about God and the Christian community. As he writes from a deeply patriarchal society, this becomes a stumbling block in a congregation where strong female leadership has long been embraced. 

He also reflects the traditional order of rhetorical proofs adopted by Aristotle, where the highest order of proof is that the person actually lives out what he claims to believe. When we read these claims with eyes of the 21st century, it can sound like bragging. It may have sounded less so in a culture, where folks were reluctant to invite folks to “see” if they “walked the walk, or just talked the talk.”  

The use of this selection of Paul’s letter is directly related to the braggadocio that has long been associated with Paul, and the clear call in the gospel lesson this morning for humility. 

I try to stick to the gospel lessons when preaching in an Interim position. There is no better source of hope in the world, than the life and teaching of Jesus. I want the congregation to have the stories of Jesus fresh on your minds. I want to help you model the approach of Jesus in the world that you are living in. 

I believe the world would be a better place to live, if more folks behaved towards their neighbors as Jesus did. He expressed clear values, but did not intimidate others. I also believe that our best invitation to folks who do not have a church, is to meet the love of Jesus, living in us, and kept fresh with an awareness of Jesus the Christ, the center of our gospel stories. Jesus is always our best model, and the answer to all of the hard questions.

In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus clearly says to be careful to notice the difference between what people say they value, and what they do. It is easy to make claims about caring for others, but we would be well served to see what folks really do. Self proclaimed praise has no value. 

Because of the age I am, I cannot reflect on humility in the public arena without recalling two contrasting, and contemporary personalities of the 1960s and 1970s; Cassius Clay, later named Mohammed Ali, and President Jimmie Carter. Both of these men were widely noted for the influence of faith in their personal and public lives, and both have been offered as contrasting examples of bragging and humility. 

Cassius Clay was a brash teen age boxer out of Louisville Kentucky. He was a large man for the day, and quick as lightening. At 18 years of age he won the 1960 light-heavyweight Olympic Gold Medal for boxing. He turned professional soon after this event. After he won the world heavyweight championship in 1964, he announced he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The Nation of Islam, was a controversial splinter group of Muslims, devoted to black separation and self-improvement in its beginning, was his initial entry into the Muslim faith.    

In the 1960’s, the United States was awakening from its intentional blindness to the effects of racism in our country. The Civil Rights Movement would grow in visibility, as African Americans stepped out of the shadows to proclaim the truth of injustice in our society. 

As the heavy weight Champion of the World, Muhammad Ali was - by virtue of both his personality and title, a significant public figure. There was continuing pressure on black public figures, to make clear where they stood on the issues of race and justice in the US. Ali was a focal point for the growing movement. Into the mix of this heightened sense of political awareness, came the rapid expansion of the war in Viet Nam, and the restoration of the military draft. 

In both the celebration of his victories in the ring, and promotion of those fights, Ali was a media favorite. He was good-looking and engaging. He loved to use rhyme and meter, usually wrapped around an allegorical depiction of his prowess. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is an often  quoted example. What really stuck was his proclamation, “I am the greatest.” It was likely a true statement of his boxing skills and physical prowess at the time. It became a handle for derision when Ali picked up the resistance to the Viet Nam war, by refusing to be inducted into the Army after being drafted. 

There were death threats. There was name calling. The most resistant pockets of racial intolerance became inflamed, trying to match the pugilist’s rhetoric, in mocking his race, acceptance of Islam, and unwillingness to participate in the armed services. 

We all know that the Army would gladly have given him an early out if he would have been a Public Relations spokesman for a couple of years. Clearly Ali knew the choice he was making. He was taken to court. He served time. He missed the most productive years in the short career of a prize fighter. We will never know just how great a fighter he may have been. 

Jimmy Carter is a Georgia peanut farmer and Sunday School teacher. As a young man he was an Annapolis graduate, served in the US Navy’s submarine force and nuclear division, and later become the governor of Georgia. In the tumultuous time following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the unlikely Carter was elected President of the United States in 1976. 

Carter is one of very few people who has left the political arena, and have their reputation for integrity, continue to grow. He has received the Nobel Peace Prize, is widely noted for his continuing efforts, and some success, in the area of international statesmanship. 

During the election campaign, Carter sat for an extensive interview published in Playboy magazine, of all things. As a modest man and devoted Christian, he seemed out of place in those pages. During the interview he admitted that he had committed adultery - “by lusting in his heart.” 

In the time and place, such an admission seemed to be without any meaningful context. He was speaking from a deep awareness of the value of women and rejection of their objectification, which was the hallmark of the Playboy Enterprise. He spoke in contrast to the pervasive sexual permissiveness that characterized the 60s and early 70s. 

  So this morning we sit with several examples of pride and humility, mixed with a sense of religious awareness and conviction. The apostle Paul, who was clearly the driving force to the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Western world, the Christianity that you and I know, is hard for us to hear. He is a prisoner of the patriarchal age, and the urgent nature of his personality and his understanding of his mission. 

Muhammad Ali, is a polarizing figure for his role in social issues, as well as his conversion to a controversial form of the Muslim faith. As happens so often in cults devoted to a charismatic leader, the Nation of Islam, in its desire to be a change agent in the broader society, was susceptible to power plays within the organization. It became unstable following the death of Elijah Muhammad. 

Ali was respected by both his proponents and detractors for being genuine. While he was a gregarious extrovert by nature, as his Parkinson’s disease progressed, he stayed out of the public eye. His later years were marked by his privacy, philanthropy, and family time. 

President Carter, continues to be a force for peace and compassion for the world. He had deep convictions, but was not sufficiently prepared to play the games in the nation’s capital, to achieve all that he wished for as President. In many ways, he has been easier to understand and appreciate as a private citizen than he ever was as President. And I can claim that as a personal observation. 

Jesus instructs us to do the work assigned to us. You and I are called to be saints, alive and well and making an impact in Morton, Illinois. You have chosen as a congregation to express the wide welcome of the gospel story of Jesus in a community where there is intolerance towards the LGBTQ people. This is also a region where racism is alive. We live in a culture that idolizes the super wealthy, and disdains the poor. There are self-proclaimed super-patriots leading attacks on the environment, public works of all kinds, and the role of women in society. 

Our job is not easy. Jesus encourages us to approach our task with the demeanor of a servant. We are encouraged to confront the racism, classism, sexism with unblinking reliance on the love of God. True humility does not mean that we are silent in the face of oppression. Humility is not another name for silent acquiescence. 

So we ask God to help us confront racism, but not label our neighbors as racists. They are children of God, who need a change of heart. We strain to welcome LGBTQ people and their families, without becoming “haters” of those who do not understand, and will not cease their devotion to the sin of separation, dividing people into us and them.   

So, with all of these heady thoughts rattling around my cranium this week, I turned on the radio to an oldies stations. They played the classic from the Charlie Daniels Band, the Devil Went Down to Georgia. My son is an Old-Time fiddler, but he could not be here this morning, so, you will have to go home and Google it if you need to hear a live fiddler. 

The story in the song is the devil makes a bet, that he is a better fiddler. The young boy says, “My name’s Johnny, and it might be a sin. But I’ll take your bet, you’re gonna regret, cause I’m the best that’s ever been.”  And of course, he won in toe tapping style. 

If you are good enough to beat the devil, I guess you ought to, but only - only if you can do it for the glory of God. You see the gifts we get from God, are to be used to build the love of God and neighbor. So the choirs - young and old - sing hymns, the bell ringers jingle, and the organ’s pipes are tipped toward heaven. And we do our best, limited by the language of our day. We do our best, realizing that only Jesus was the best, so we let his teaching and actions inspire the work that we do. Amen.